American Civil Liberties Union attorney Lucas Guttentag made international news this year when he filed a lawsuit against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and three other high-ranking military officials, seeking to hold them responsible for prisoner abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Guttentag will be speaking at the Indiana Civil Liberties Union annual dinner, where he'll talk about that case, which is pending in a Washington, D.C., district court, and his work as founder and director of the ACLU's Immigrant Rights Project. Guttentag's speech is part of "From Guantanamo to the Statehouse: Human Rights in 2005," a day-long conference at the Downtown Indianapolis Hilton. Call 317-635-4059 for more details.
NUVO reached Guttentag by phone last week to talk about his work.
Q: What was your reaction to Sept. 11?
A: It was a horrific event. It was an attack that we all condemn. I was in Washington, D.C., at the time. It was obviously a huge shock. I felt enormous outrage, sadness and anger.
Q: But now you're working on behalf of Iraqis who were prisoners in Abu Ghraib. I'm sure there are people who can't see how you can feel one way about the attacks and another about the military's conduct. Can you explain how you reconcile that?
A: We represent specific individuals who were horrifically abused and tortured while in U.S. military custody. This is not a question of attacking the U.S. military. This is trying to vindicate the principles that have led the U.S. military for generations. What we condemn is the abuse and the torture, and the lawsuit is to hold those accountable who failed in their duty to stop the torture when they learned of it and who set it in motion by the orders and the tolerance of abusive tactics that they issued.
The question is, how did it happen and who is ultimately responsible? What the lawsuit lays out at great length is why, under long-establish principles of military responsibility, command responsibility, international law and the U.S. Constitution, commanders who know or should have known of abuses that occurred are responsible for the violations of their subordinates. In this case, the record of the U.S. military's own investigations, the innumerable press reports, the documented reports of the International Red Cross and other sources demonstrate again and again that it was impossible for the secretary of defense not to know what was occurring. [You can read the complaint at aclu.org.]
Q: So you think Rumsfeld knew?
A: Knew, or should have known.
Q: What do you say to the people who say all's fair in love and war?
A: There are basic norms of conduct that the United States has championed for generations, and among the absolutely most fundamental of those is that torture is impermissible. Another is that the commanders are responsible for the violations of their troops. The prohibition against torture, the United States has consistently reiterated, is absolute. It's a practical principle that's intended to protect U.S. troops as well. Once we violate the norm that no one will be tortured, we lose our credibility, we lose the ability to condemn others and we diminish the protection of U.S. troops.
Q: What does it feel like to sue one of the most powerful people in the world?
A: It's not a decision we made lightly. It's a reflection of the strength and, in my view, the glory of our legal system, of our democracy and the principle of the rule of law: that no person is above the law. That every person, from the president on down, ultimately is accountable in a court of law as to whether his or her actions are in violation of the Constitution. What this case is about is to hold accountable the secretary of defense for what we allege are fundamental violations of the Constitution and international legal norms that transgress long-standing fundamental values of the United States.